The Problem With Sex As A Video Game Goal

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As you thumb through dialogue trees in Mass Effect, trying to find the best lines to seduce slinky space-warrior Ashley, you're engaging in what the developers hope is an advanced form of simulated human interaction.


Throughout the game, Ashley slowly warms to your own personal Commander Shepard, even reeling off some flirtatious lines of her own.

If you've pressed ‘A' effectively enough your efforts are rewarded with a short sex scene.

And then, nothing.

Spoiler warning: This article mentions a late-game plot event in Red Dead Redemption.

The end goal of these love side-quests is often just sex - as if that's the zenith of any proper human courtship.

As the technology behind video games advances, ambitious developers have begun to toy with the idea of creating realistic romantic relationships. But the end goal of these love side-quests is often just sex - as if that's the zenith of any proper human courtship. A romantic tryst between two people features hundreds of intimate moments, of which sex is only one. Video games allow for a substantial link between the player and the character they control. Seeing that character share subtle romantic connections can be immensely fulfilling, while the attainment of intercourse usually feels like nothing more than a successfully completed mission.

Sex is undoubtedly an important facet of any romantic partnership. At a base level, it's the activity that furthers the race, one we're evolutionarily programmed to seek out and enjoy. Featuring sex in video game relationships is definitely worthwhile and prudishness should not stand in the way of an engaging narrative. Abolishing sex from mainstream story-driven games would be a disaster, forcing it to retreat into the next Leisure Suit Larry cacophony. Having sex appear as a product of romantic engagement has been an important step forward, but the industry shows signs of stagnating; wallowing in its own maturity.


Sex is an alluring experience from a game development standpoint. It's a tangible target, a moment of accomplishment that clearly indicates to the player that they've been successful. Bioware's Dragon Age goes so far as to award Achievements each time you successfully enact coitus with a new member of your party. Games need goals and, if you're in the business of portraying romance, making sex your bulls-eye is an easy option.

Escaping this trap won't be easy, it may even require abandoning a goal centric model for in-game relationships. Moments of intimacy are typically not forced, they flow naturally from the interactions between people. Often, the most striking and meaningful moments in real life relationships occur when nothing much is going on. Video games don't like downtime. There's a constant need to make every action serve a purpose. Moving away from the inexorable charge towards sex will take either a developer brave enough to discard functionalism for moments of simple storytelling or exceptional writing and design that seamlessly blend the two together.


In Persona 4... a great emotional intensity is expressed through little more than a declaration of affection and some light snuggling on a bedroom couch.

A well rounded portrayal of an adult romantic relationship is likely to include sex, but there are examples of games eschewing on-screen copulation without betraying their depiction of love. Persona 4 - by Atlus - is a lengthy game, one that dedicates a large portion of its play-time to budding romances between the player-character and his rag-tag band of acquaintances. In the climax to one of these narrative threads, a great emotional intensity is expressed through little more than a declaration of affection and some light snuggling on a bedroom couch. Out of context it's not nearly as bombastic as sex, but it tugs at the heartstrings far more effectively than a 30-second montage of grinding and moaning.

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Persona 4 is also an excellent example of how to connect narrative relationship advancement and productive game mechanics. When you choose to spend time with one of your friends there's very little in the way of gameplay, but each time you sit through one of these vignettes, you're rewarded with an increase in your Social Link, which boosts the power of your created monsters.


As its characters are high school teenagers, Persona avoids sex in its relationships out of a well-intentioned reticence. Rockstar, on the other hand, could never be accused of shying away from the gratuitous. From Grand Theft Auto to Bully, they have shown a willingness to indulge in the unseemly as well as a dedication to strong stories. In Red Dead Redemption they have perhaps their best excuse yet to fill our TV screens with high-definition thrusting.

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After repeatedly spurning the advances of lascivious ladies on the grounds of marital faithfulness, John Marston returns home to the arms of his feisty wife Abigail. Marston has spent so much time aching to be reunited with his belle that just seeing them together is a rewarding moment. The couple's good-natured jibes and snatched cuddles are depictions of a romantic relationship fully formed, the kind rarely seen in games. You wouldn't begrudge the writers a sex scene or two at this stage, but it's difficult to see what the player would gain, beyond mild titillation. As it is, their subtle interactions form a heartwarming payoff to hours of gameplay.

If games want to compete with other narrative media, they need to do a better job of creating immersive human relationships. The inclusion of sex in these couplings is an important step towards maturity and realism, but it's also a barrier beyond which the industry has struggled to progress. A select group of games have broken the mould, showing us that sex is not a necessary feature of rewarding in-game romance, just one entry in the rich encyclopedia of intimate personal behaviour.


Joseph Ewens is a freelance video game, film, and poker journalist from London. You can keep track of his various writings at his blog Joyous Film Review or hurl abuse at him on Twitter @JoeOE18.

[Dragon Age achievements pic]



"Having sex appear as a product of romantic engagement has been an important step forward"

I honestly have to say, "Meh."

I'm tired of sex appearing in games (and books, and movies, and other media) without any mention of romantic commitment.

(And why should this matter? Because I've seen or heard of too many intimate relationships fail and fail bitterly because of the misuse of sex, or I've met too many people who gave themselves away prematurely and regretted it. I'd like to see that sort of "disappointment" and regret be featured more in game stories and fiction in general, because the lack of it tends to strain my own suspension of disbelief.)

I honestly don't know or ultimately care if that sounds prudish or not, but I don't see how sex minus commitment can make for a healthy long-term relationship.

To be honest, the romances in Mass Effect 1 were awkward (I haven't personally followed any of them in Mass Effect 2 on my own files), because you ended up in bed with another character whom you've not known for very long.

The character Liara's portrayal of sex as an act that truly unites two people at a level deeper than the physical, speaks volumes in a way that hopefully can't be reduced to the fact that there may be a biological context for her statements (because of how asari sex works). It also does an interesting job of going against the asari stereotype of sexual promiscuity.

Regarding Mass Effect 2, Tali seems to have at least ~something~ of an eye toward commitment, though I suppose this is externally enforced by the fact that she, an alien with next to no immune system, takes upon herself the risk of dying from exposure. I will say that if she is seeking some sort of lifelong commitment in this, then that's a whole lot better than nothing.

There was an earlier Kotaku article about sex in video games several months ago, but I can't find it.


I would love to see an in-game courtship story, carefully and delicately crafted, that does go all the way from acquaintanceship to friendship to courtship to marriage, and if sex enters the equation there, then wonderful. As stated earlier, I think this issue extends beyond video games and even beyond media, into society as a whole. And I can't really say whether life imitates art or vice versa, or if the two reinforce one another.

Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic had a really touching romantic moment at the end of the game (male Light-side solution to the Bastila problem), though it's been so long since I played the game that I don't remember what the build-up was like.

Can anyone provide information on what the romances in Planescape: Torment were like? It's been so long since I played that, that the only thing I really remember is Annah's biological reaction to a kiss (which is all you give her in the game — ironic but intriguing, since there are so many prostitutes to be solicited in the various cities). Thanks!